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Mahakala, Protector of the Tent

Met curator Kurt Behrendt on darkness in Mahakala, Protector of the Tent by the Sakya Order of Central Tibet, c. 1500.

Mahakala, the fierce emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, is one of the most popular guardians in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. He is especially revered by the Sakya Order, and the presence of Mahasiddhas and Sakyapa teachers framing the deity makes clear that this protector was commissioned for a Sakya monastery.

Mahakala tramples a corpse and holds a flaying knife and blood-filled skull cup, signifying the defeat of all impediments to enlightenment. He wears a profusion of gold and bone ornaments, and coiled around his belly is his Brahmin cord of a live green snake. Beneath it hangs a garland of severed heads. In the crooks of his elbows he supports a gandi gong, used to summon monks to assemblies and a symbol of his vow to protect the Buddhist university of Nalanda. His principal companions, Palden Remati and Palden Lhamo, appear to his left, and Legden Nagpo and Bhutadamara appear to his right. To the lower left is Brahmarupa, blowing a thighbone trumpet.

This tangka is one of the earliest and grandest of this subject, and marks the beginning of a transfer from what was largely a mural tradition to large-scale cloth paintings. Although commissioned for a Tibetan monastery, the work is strongly Nepali in style and composition, and can be related to paintings in the fifteenth-century Kumbum at Gyantse monastery, believed to have been painted under Newari direction.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user torgray1
    why did the mahakala eat the people when they did nothing wrong?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Demian Choi
      Though it might say that a disrespectful student will be eaten, there is a symbolic meaning to it. If you look into the esoteric Vajrayana texts, there is symbolism. One does not take the literal meaning of the texts, but the inner meaning. By the "disrespectful student" or "enemy," it is referring to the self-clinging which one is still attached to that makes many obstacles for the practitioner. In order to cure this, the dharmapala(in this case, Mahakala Panjaranatha) must use destructive means to destroy this self-clinging. This is not by killing the person, but the self which makes the person cause all these obstacles. Of course, it is not always destruction in order to transform the person. There are 4 means that one must take: pacification(purification practices, healing, etc.), increasing(wealth, wisdom, etc.), magnetizing(influence, social means, etc., and finally, destruction(as shown here to remove obstacles and eliminate it).
      These days, people mistake destruction in a negative view. In reality, the lamas that take up the destructive path must have WRATHFUL COMPASSION in order to do such wrathful practices. The dharmapala is like a mother protecting her child, to save the practitioners from any dangers and to transform the path so that it is easier to practice dharma. But remember, do not confuse the dharmapalas with wrathful yidams(meditational deities). Usually, lamas take up the practice of wrathful yidams as their main practice instead of dharmapalas. Dharmapalas aren't the main focus, they are just their by their vows to help practitioners in being able to practice dharma, not as a path to Nirvana. Now, there are special cases where the yidam, Yamantaka, can count as both a dharmapala and a yidam, but not so much with other protectors like Palden Lhamo, Mahakala, Tashi Tseringma, Dorje Yudronma, Nyanchen Thanglha, and so on. Then there are the enlightened masters who take the form of wrathful deities, but are not necessarily "dharmapalas." In this matter, Padmasambhava can become the wrathful Dorje Dragpo Tsal, but he is not a dharmapala.
      (2 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user CaraShamrock
    How long would it take to create such an artifact?
    (1 vote)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user FAYZAL FAHIM
    why did he eat the wrong guys,he could do some thing else.this sooo strange.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

This is a thangka, done in central Tibet, about 1500 A.D.. The central deity, Mahakala, emerges out of this halo of flames, a demon from your worst nightmare. Within Buddhism, Mahakala means the “great dark one” or “blackness.” You would have been in a dark temple with a candle, and seen portions of this deity emerging from the darkness. He stands on a corpse baring his fangs, and holding a knife and a skull full of blood and gore. Surrounded by this host of demons that dance brandishing weapons, while dogs, jackals and crows devour the flesh of dead bodies. I find it shocking that you have this host of respectable monks sitting on the edges. Texts tell us that a student who does not respect the Buddha is eaten up raw by Mahakala. He is a protector of the monastery and of Buddhist teaching, and capable of destroying obstacles that hold them back from attaining enlightenment. The most deeply seated desires and attachments that bind us to this world: greed, lust, but more to the point, ego. And this idea of severing one’s ego is linked to the cutting off of these heads. It’s almost life size, and would have had great impact simply because of its scale. There’s a very careful under-drawing that’s proportionally correct; if the image was improperly constructed, the meditator would be psychically damaged. In a sense it’s this idea of giving this realm that’s beyond our understanding real form. It not only grabs my attention and pulls me into this alternate reality, but it plays very much with issues that I find threatening. That tension is very sublime. You are looking into his eyes, and you’re confronted with his aggression that triggers all of your anxiety and fear in the world. And yet at the same time, there is something reassuring that a deity as powerful as this is going to be on your side. He’s a fierce ally. That sense of dread or that sense of the unknown gives him great gravity and meaning.